Feats of Arms

Feats of Arms

This week’s choice is “Faithless Nelly Gray” by Thomas Hood, a tour-de-force in double meanings and puns.

“Why, then,” said she, “you’ve lost the feet
  Of legs in war’s alarms,
And now you cannot wear the shoes
  Upon your feats of arms.”

Thomas Hood (1799—1845)

Poem 211. Faithless Nelly Gray

BEN BATTLE was a soldier bold,
  And used to war’s alarms,
But a cannon-ball took off his legs,
  So he laid down his arms.      
Now as they bore him off the field,
  Said he, “Let others shoot;
For here I leave my second leg,
  And the Forty-second Foot.” 
The army surgeons made him limbs;
  Said he, “They’re only pegs;
But they’re as wooden members quite
  As represent my legs.”            
Now Ben he loved a pretty maid,
  Her name was Nelly Gray;
So he went to pay her his devours,
  When he’d devoured his pay.
But when he called on Nelly Gray,
  She made him quite a scoff;
And when she saw his wooden legs,
  Began to take them off.
“Oh, Nelly Gray! Oh, Nelly Gray!
  Is this your love so warm?
The love that loves a scarlet coat
  Should be more uniform.”
Said she, “I loved a soldier once,
  For he was blithe and brave;
But I will never have a man
  With both legs in the grave.
“Before you had those timber toes
  Your love I did allow,
But then, you know, you stand upon
  Another footing now.”
“Oh, Nelly Gray! Oh, Nelly Gray!
  For all your jeering speeches,
At duty’s call I left my legs
  In Badajoz’s breaches.”
“Why, then,” said she, “you’ve lost the feet
  Of legs in war’s alarms,
And now you cannot wear the shoes
  Upon your feats of arms.”
“Oh, false and fickle Nelly Gray!
  I know why you refuse—
Though I’ve no feet, some other man
  Is standing in my shoes!         

“I wish I ne’er had seen your face;
  But now, a long farewell!
For you will be my death; alas!
  You will not be my Nell.”

Now, when he went from Nelly Gray,
  His heart so heavy got,
And life was such a burthen grown,
  It made him take a knot.
So round his melancholy neck
  A rope he did entwine,
And, for the second time in life,
  Enlisted in the Line!
One end he tied around a beam,
  And then removed his pegs,
And, as his legs were off, of course
  He soon was off his legs.
And there he hung till he was dead
  As any nail in town;
For though despair had cut him up,
  It could not cut him down.
A dozen men sat on his corpse,
  To find out why he died;
And they buried Ben in four cross-roads,
  With a stake in his inside.

Also known as “A Pathetic Ballad”, this poem tells the sad story of Ben Battle through a sequence of clever wordplay—there is a pun or double meaning in every stanza which is something of an achievement.

The first stanza puns on his upper limbs and the weapons he carries (both arms). In the second stanza Ben is forced to leave his regiment (the 42nd Foot) and his second leg on the battlefield. The third reminds us that pegs is a synonym for legs as well as wooden pins.

The fourth stanza introduces Nelly Gray and shows us a different kind of pun, where Ben pays her his devours (I haven’t found a definition for this, but I presume it’s his respects) when he’s devoured (spent) his pay.

In the fifth stanza Nelly (who is evidently a heartless kind of girl) scoffs at his wooden legs: taking them off in a figurative sense rather than literally removing them. In the next stanza Ben’s scarlet coat (part of an 19th Century soldier’s uniform) becomes part of the joke as he remonstrates with his girl, saying that her love “should be more uniform”—in the sense of straight or level.

Nelly ripostes that although she loved him once, she can’t love a man “with both legs in the grave”—using the double meaning of his missing legs and a variation of the phrase “one foot in the grave”. She continues to sneer at him in the next stanza, which ends: “you stand upon another footing now” so that his wooden legs are compared with his much less advantageous situation (disabled soldiers of the time could not expect much in the way of pension or recompense for their injuries).

Ben reminds her that he was injured in the line of duty: “I left my legs in Badajoz’s breaches”—we can enjoy here the double meaning of his legs being left on the battlefield and the idea of leaving his legs in a pair of breeches (knee-length trousers). At the siege of Badajoz in 1812, Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) attempted to break through the walls of the Spanish city—the wall was breached three times to no avail but the assault eventually turned and the town and castle were taken at the cost of some 5,000 British soldiers and 1,200 French soldiers on the other side. With the town taken, the troops went on the rampage, raping and killing civilians, and it took three days to restore order.

The following stanza uses a series of puns to express Nelly’s disdain: “you’ve lost the feet of legs…and now you cannot wear the shoes upon your feats of arms”.

Ben challenges Nelly, saying that he knows why she won’t have him: she has taken another lover: “Though I’ve no feet, some other man is standing in my shoes!”

He bids her farewell and here there’s a clever pun: “you will be my death; alas! You will not be my Nell.”—his heart is broken and he resolves to die because she will not have him; the joke lies in the homophone Nell/Knell, because to knell (or toll) is to ring a bell for a funeral or death.

I confess that I don’t see a pun in the next stanza—perhaps you had to have been there—but I suspect that to “take a knot” had a different (and probably more salubrious) meaning than it does now—don’t look it up.

The next stanza shows us his preparations for suicide and in a rather black bit of humour, compares his chosen method with enlistment (enlisting in the line meant joining a regular army regiment).

Ben ties the rope up and then takes off his pegs: “And, as his legs were off, of course/He soon was off his legs”—I assume this means he was hanging.

The penultimate stanza plays on the idea that though despair had cut Ben up (he was upset and depressed), it could not cut him down (by severing the rope). In the final stanza, the jury sit on poor Ben’s corpse (they are conducting an inquest, which used to require a jury) and he is buried at a cross-roads with a stake through him (a common belief of the time was that suicides rose again as ghosts and it was necessary to prevent this by burying them at a cross-roads so that they would not know which road to take and could not therefore haunt the locality, and by transfixing them with a stake so that they wouldn’t rise at all (this was later associated more closely with vampires).

I like this poem despite its dark subject matter because of Hood’s tremendous skill in telling the story with these double meanings. He wrote a similar poem, “Faithless Sally Brown”, which ends:

His death, which happen’d in his berth,
At forty-odd befell:
They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton toll’d the bell.

The joke here is very similar to the knell/Nell pun above, but is better in my opinion—the sexton was the parish official responsible for marking the death of a parishioner by tolling the bell: nine times for a man, six times for a woman, hence the saying “Nine tailors make a man” which led Dorothy L. Sayers to the title of her Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, “The Nine Tailors”.


  • Read about the siege and storming of Badajoz on Wikipedia.